Finding God in silence Arthur Middleton
Finding God in silence is a way of prayer that everyone can practise. Today, some aspects of our living conditions – noise, rush, activism and lack of privacy – make it difficult to pray, producing strain, a continual nervous restlessness with too many entertaining diversions, in an atmosphere charged with tension.
People end up distracted and complain that there is no time to pray. Yet increasing numbers of people want to pray, but finding a way to do so will mean discovering a measure of independence and mastery within the new conditions of life.
It is possible to continue one’s ordinary life and make very little change, at least in the outward circumstances and withstanding the disintegrating distractions to find time for prayer. One way is to adopt the Christian principle of the ‘mixed life’ in which prayer and action are blended, a way of prayerful living commended prayerful sti l l n by St Augustine and St Gregory the prayerfulness of the whole of life, when life in the workaday world is buzzing with distraction.
There is a growing interest in this way of quiet waiting upon God, commonly known as contemplative prayer. In Sacred and Secular Bishop Michael Ramsey claimed that this kind of prayer bridges the gap between worship and the common life. Contemplative prayer is the prayer of hunger and thirst, of desire for God. It is the prayer in which the self is not pious but simply itself towards God. It links Christianity and ordinary life.
Thomas Merton explains in Contemplative Prayer that such seeking of God is not a matter of our finding him by means of certain methods and ascetic techniques. It is a quieting of our whole life by self-denial, prayer and good works, so that God himself who seeks us more than we seek him can ‘find us’ and ‘take possession of us’.
He goes on to say that we must realize our nothingness and emptiness, which requires a complete surrender of the exterior, false self, to God’s love. We must let go of everything that is centred on the illusory false self, the self we think we are, and thus gain the truer self that is the image of God within us. God’s love will fill the emptiness. Such a way of knowing God is accessible to any man, woman or child who is ready to try to be obedient and humble and to want God very much.
The experience described in The Way of the Pilgrim (ed. R.M. French) has a contemporary ring about it. A simple peasant wants to find out how to pray without ceasing. The book tells the story of this Russian pilgrim who spent a year searching for the secret of such unceasing prayer before meeting a monk to whom he mentions his desire for such prayer.
The Way of the Pilgrim
The monk tells him that the heavenly light of unceasing interior prayer is found in poverty of spirit and in active experience in simplicity of heart. Many people, the monk tells him, get it the wrong way round. They think that good actions and all sorts of preliminary measures render us capable of prayer.
Actually, it is the reverse which is true. It is prayer which bears fruit in good works and all the virtues. The Christian is bound to perform many good works, but before all else what he ought to do is pray, for without prayer no other good work whatever can be accomplished.
Prayer without ceasing
When they reached the monastery the pilgrim implored the monk to show him what praying without ceasing meant and how it could be learned. So the monk continued and told him that the continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant calling upon the divine name of Jesus, with the lips, in the Spirit, in the heart. In this calling on the Holy Name the pilgrim is to form a mental picture of his constant presence and implore his grace, at all times and in all places, even during sleep. The words to be used are these: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
If the pilgrim accustoms himself to the constant repetition of this prayer, he will experience so deep a consolation, and so great a need to offer this prayer always, that he can no longer live without it. Eventually it will continue to voice itself in him of its own accord.
‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is your thoughts, from your head into your heart. As you breathe out say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’. Say it moving your lips gently or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient and repeat the process very frequently’. ND